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What should you do if you think someone has dementia?

A father and daughter stand together, her arm around his shoulders.
Noticing a change in someone you're close with might be distressing, but encouraging them to see their doctor might help provide early diagnosis.

Dementia is the term given to a group of diseases that affect a person’s thinking, behaviour and ability to perform everyday tasks. While it’s commonly thought of as an older person’s disease, dementia can affect people of all ages.

Early symptoms of dementia can be vague and vary between people. While some people pick up on changes in their own thinking or behaviour that might be caused by dementia, sometimes these signs are first noticed by those around them.

If you’ve noticed a change in someone close to you, the steps below can help you assist them in seeking diagnosis and treatment.

Know the signs of dementia

Early diagnosis can help people with dementia plan for the future, and might mean they can access interventions that help slow down the disease. Being familiar with the signs of dementia can help people receive a diagnosis as early as possible.

Early signs that a person might have dementia can include:

  • being vague in everyday conversations
  • memory loss that affects day-to-day function
  • short term memory loss
  • difficulty performing everyday tasks and taking longer to do routine tasks
  • losing enthusiasm or interest in regular activities
  • difficulties in thinking or saying the right words
  • changes in personality or behaviour
  • finding it difficult to follow instructions
  • finding it difficult to follow stories
  • increased emotional unpredictability.
A woman talks to her mother.

Encourage them to see their doctor

If you’ve noticed that someone close to you is showing symptoms of dementia, it’s important to encourage them to see their doctor to talk through what’s been going on.

Talking to someone about changes you’ve noticed in them can be difficult. It can help to have the conversation in a space where both of you are comfortable, are able to hear each other clearly and speak freely. Health Direct recommends starting the conversation by talking about what you’ve noticed and the other common reasons this might be happening. For example, you might say you’ve noticed the person has had trouble with their memory recently, and ask if they’ve been stressed or not sleeping well. Then you can suggest that it’s time to see a doctor to find out what’s happening.  

If you don’t have a close relationship with the person, you might talk to someone who knows them well about what you’ve noticed, see if they’ve noticed the same things and ask them to bring it up with the person.

Some people might be keen to see their doctor once you’ve spoken to them about their symptoms, especially if they’ve noticed these changes, too. But others might resist the suggestion to see their doctor. This might be because they are worried or scared about the changes you’ve noticed and what they might mean, which is a very natural reaction. If the person does have dementia, their condition might stop them from recognising the changes in themselves that you’ve noticed, and this might cause them to dismiss the need to see a doctor.

If a person remains resistant to following up about changes in their memory or behaviour, Dementia Australia recommends finding a different, physical reason to encourage the person to see the doctor, like an overall physical check-up, a blood pressure test or diabetes check. You can see more suggestions on what to do if the person you are concerned about does not want to see their doctor on the Dementia Australia website.

If you’re feeling unsure about how to start the conversation, you can always talk to your own doctor about what you’ve noticed, and ask for their advice about what to do next. You can also contact the National Dementia Helpline to talk to a professional about the possible next steps.

Don’t self-diagnose

There are a lot of different conditions that can cause symptoms similar to dementia, so it’s important not to diagnose someone yourself. Issues like stress, mental health conditions, stroke, medicines, nutritional disorders, hormone disorders, alcohol misuse and brain tumours can all cause similar symptoms to dementia. The best thing you can do is encourage the person to see their doctor to find out exactly what’s going on.

Offer assistance

You might offer to help the person book their appointment or attend their appointment with them. You can be useful by helping them prepare a list of what they want to tell the doctor, taking notes during the appointment and prompting them to ask questions they haven’t remembered. You should always ask for the person’s permission to help and attend appointments.

A man sits at a chess board.

Look after yourself

Realising that something could be wrong with someone close to you can be worrying. You might immediately start thinking about how a potential illness will affect their life or plans that you have made together.

While it’s normal to experience stress when someone important to you is unwell, if possible, take steps to prevent stress affecting your own health and wellbeing. If you notice that thinking about their potential illness is causing you to worry a lot, feel anxious or overwhelmed, cause physical symptoms like loss of sleep, shortness of breath or a racing heart, it might be time to seek help for yourself as well. You might discuss how you’re feeling with a trusted friend or family member, talk to your doctor, or use a support service like the National Dementia Hotline to speak to a professional about what’s been happening.

More information about dementia

Dementia Australia

Health Direct - Dementia

Your Brain Matters

5 things you might not know about dementia

Last updated: 17 September 2018